Governing the Unknown: Adaptive Spatial Planning in the age of uncertainty

5 minutes read

This is a short contribution by the Local Organizing Committee (LOC), from POLIS University, Tirana, unfolding the inspirations and underlying events that led to the theme for the 2021 AESOP YA Conference. At the beginning of September 2019, we decided to apply as organizers of the next YA Conference. We were strongly encouraged by the engagement of AESOP to bring the next YA Conferences (2021, 2022) towards South-East Europe. POLIS is a relatively young university that has been operating since 2007, and a vast majority of the academic staff are also young practitioners specializing in the field of spatial planning. This is a rather new discipline in Albania, given that the urban planning milieu has been dominated by a technocratic, urbanist tradition in the last century. Therefore, this was a golden opportunity not to be missed: (1) hosting a conference dedicated to young academics in spatial planning and (2) launching Albania as an open laboratory to analyze and think critically about political, social, economic transformations going on in South-East Europe. At that point, we needed to find a smart conference topic to encompass the complexity of these transformations. 

We aimed for something future-oriented and linked to the topics of “resilience and adaptivity.  However,  considering the vast amount of conferences in recent years focusing on this topic, we were not fully convinced at the beginning. Nevertheless, our dilemma was shaken soon after our first meeting, with a seismic event of magnitude 5.8 happening on September 21 2019 in the coastal part of Albania. Not long after this event, on November 26, an even larger earthquake of 6.4 magnitude hit the Tirane-Durres metropolitan area. This time the aftermath was tragic (Image 1). The earthquake resulted in thousands of buildings being damaged and ten-thousands more declared uninhabitable. Moreover, there were thousands of people that got injured and 51 casualties were recorded. This event brought to light many of the planning and construction failures in Albania, highlighting the need to rethink  the overall approach in terms of spatial planning and urban development. Suddenly the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptivity’ didn’t sound like buzzwords anymore. Hence, we decided to focus our conference on two main aspects of resilience and adaptivity such as (1) Uncertainty and (2) The Unknown.

Image 1: Emergency workers clearing debris after a building collapsed in Thumane, during the Earthquake of 26 November
Source: The New York Times, Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

The current global context is facing dynamic development and changes. These new conditions of uncertainty have  created the need for socio-economic systems, people and institutions, as well as our urban and ecological system to become more resilient. Having the ability to cope with crises, but also to adapt to change and situations of  uncertainty, has created the necessity to change our planning paradigms. This has become more apparent in our current and ongoing experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On the other hand, Donald Rumsfeld’s famous saying (2002) “there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns” holds truth also for planning. The complexity of our system is increasing, and besides dealing with the growing uncertainty, planning and governance need to deal with the complexity of the unknown. In Europe, for instance, increasing inequalities between people and places, as well as unsustainable development have reached a critical level. This will be challenged further by the pandemic in  the mid-term recovery period, as well as by the long-term climate change impacts. Climate change, as a comprehensive challenge, is not to be seen merely from an environmental perspective. Its socio-economic impacts are extremely important and are played out across territories and spaces. One could simply think of the increased frequency of extreme weather events and their impacts on society and the economy, to understand the magnitude of the challenge, let alone other less visible impacts. Additionally, the high uncertainty in planning and resilience are related and affecting economic, political, social as well as environmental aspects, which all require a degree of adaptation. While uncertainty, on one hand, requires improving prediction mechanisms and management of big data in order to reduce it, the governance of “unknowns” requires perhaps a paradigmatic shift in the way we deal with knowledge in planning altogether. Capitalizing on this, Davoudi (2015) argues that planning can be conceptualized as a practice of knowing situated in a complex interrelationship (Figure 1):

Figure 1: Planning as Practice of Knowing, Planning Theory
Source: Davoudi (2015, p. 327)

Davoudi puts an emphasis that planners need to increase knowledge on what their “does do”. As such, also in the framework of this conference, when talking about the unknown, we refer to this aspect of unknown unknowns in planning. Additionally, an important discussion we would like to open as part of the conference is the question of “what constitutes knowledge in planning and how can this knowledge be acquired?”. 

Spatial Planning as one of the main mediums for achieving territorial governance and resilience of the socio-ecological system, is a domain in constant evolution and need for reinvention as a response to the challenges ahead. The discipline has always been subject to various pressures and concerns trying to adapt to the dynamics of the world. While in its early days, planning was trying to control the future, now the growing recognition that it needs to work with uncertainty is becoming one of the main drivers of change. Today planning as a disciple has a more complex mission to face, and it needs to move away from the initial paradigms that created it.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge that planning as a profession and research domain is and will be facing in the coming decades, is its ability to adapt and work with climate change, shrinking resources, and high demand for energy, all positioned in a highly uncertain framework. These challenges are known and accepted by planners, and are quite common in planning policy discourses. However, planning has shown little capacity to develop tools and instruments able to respond to the challenge. 

Albania over the last decade has initiated a process of changing its planning system. Since 2007, continuous changes have been introduced to manage the shift from a rigid and inflexible planning system. This is done based on a controlled future paradigm and with a strong urban planning/design focus, in addition to a more comprehensive and integrated approach. This is a similar situation in most Western Balkan countries, stuck in the middle of the complex conundrum between European Integration and internal challenges. On the other hand, the seismic events of 2019 uncovered a very obvious fragility of both the planning system, as well as planning practitioners in Albania. These tragic events now offer the opportunity and the prospect of building a more resilient territory and system. Albania is now an open laboratory, where one can study the failures of the planning system and the prospects of the resilience-based rebuilding process. Organizing the YA conference in Albania with the proposed topic would serve to open an interesting discussion contributing to current debates in the country/region, while at the same time Young Academics could experience firsthand the recovery process from a major earthquake. 

In this regard, the main aim of the conference is to open a debate among young planning academics regarding the question of ‘adaptivity’ in planning and for planning in the face of uncertainty and unknowns. The conference will create a platform for knowledge sharing, from both planning theory and planning practice perspectives. Some of the important questions we would like to answer are linked to issues of dealing with uncertainty in planning, dealing with the known unknowns and to more philosophical issues of dealing with the unknown unknowns in planning and governance. 

We too, as a LOC, are learning to adapt now. Organizing this conference is associated with many uncertainties due to the situation with COVID-19 that has restricted travel in many parts of the world. However, one certain thing is that the conference will occur between the 29th of March and the 2nd of April 2021. Together with the Young Academics Coordination Team we are working closely to prepare for the conference in a multiple-scenario perspective. As much as we would like everyone to come to Albania, the conference still remains a great opportunity, a space to network and collaborate with fellow young planners, which could turn to occur in the form of a  hybrid event: a combination of in person attendance combined with online interaction. We are monitoring the situation and in January 2021 – two months before the conference, we will make a decision that does not influence the quality of the conference and, most importantly, does not impact our health and well-being. 

With this in mind, we would like to warmly invite you to join the 2021 AESOP YA Conference in Polis University, Tirana. Some important dates that you need to take into consideration for the conference are: 

– 2nd week of September opening of call of Abstracts
– 14th of November deadline for abstracts
– 1st of February 2021 deadline for full papers.

See you soon, live or virtually, in Tirana 😊

Image 2: Virtual meeting of the Local Organizing Committee, during the quarantine time April 2020 in Tirana
Source: Local Organizing Committee, personal library
From top-left to right: Fiona, Zenel, Kejt, Rudina, Amanda, Besjana, Rodi, Ledio and Eranda

Guest authors: Local Organizing Committee team: Amanda, Besjana, Eranda, Fiona, Kejt, Ledio, Rodi and Zenel (Image 2). For more information, feel free to contact the Local Organizing Committee at

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